In the latest measure to restrict Internet and disrupt foreign messaging apps, the Iranian government today announced that it has revoked Telegram’s license to host servers inside the country, the Iranian media reported. The Supreme Cyberspace Council, an agency tasked with monitoring and filtering Internet in Iran, said the license cancellation means Telegram, used by more than a half of Iran’s 80 million population, has to transfer all its servers outside Iran, and that all incoming traffic will now have to be channeled through Iran’s government-controlled net gateways. Exchanges videos and photos on Telegram has also been banned. Hesamodin Ashna, a top advisor to President Hassan Rouhani, justified the latest government action and accused Telegram of not abiding by Iran’s rules and regulations. “The license for establishing Telegram’s content delivery network (CDN) servers was part of a conditional agreement. And now that the founder of Telegram has not honored its commitments, there is no reason to keep it,” Ashna said.
The Iranian government intends to gradually ban all foreign social media and messaging apps in the country so that Iranians use domestic alternatives that can be easily monitored by the Islamic Republic authorities. Telegram is the most popular messaging app in Iran and an instant ban on the service would have triggered angry reactions inside the country. Therefore, Iranian authorities are taking gradual steps to disrupt the service. In its official statement today, Iran’s Internet watchdog said the license revocation will adversely affect the “quality” of Telegram, indicating that the service will slow down.
The Rouhani government initially opposed banning Telegram, but it soon capitulated after Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei closed down his own account to “safeguard national security” and ordered all government agencies to refrain from using foreign apps. Clerics and officials close to Khamenei, however, have tried to demonstrate to the public that the Rouhani government, not the supreme leader, is behind the filtering of foreign apps. “You want to filter and then want to lay blame on the Leader [Khamenei],” Ahmad Alamolhoda, Khamenei’s representative to Khorasan-e Razavi, recently said. He pointed out that Rouhani had pledged during the election campaign that he would not “place his finger on the filtering button” but is now intent on doing so.
Iran’s move comes just after Russia recently blocked Telegram after the company refused to share the encryption data of its users with the Russian authorities. Iran’s demand, similar to Russia’s, is that all foreign apps should keep their servers inside Iran or they will forfeit the right to operate in the country.
Iran’s restrictions on Telegram appear to be a precursor to a complete ban on all foreign social media platform and messaging services in the near future. Facing growing internal and external pressure, Iranian authorities are further securitizing the society and limiting the Iranians’ social freedoms. Iran temporarily filtered Telegram during antigovernment protests that engulfed Iran in December and January.
While the Iranian state wants the people to switch to domestic messaging services, however, the Iranian people remain suspicious about home-grown apps as the government can easily access their private information and use it against them. Another challenge for the Iranian regime is that domestic apps are too underdeveloped and poorly resourced to compete with foreign services. iPhone has also removed Iranian apps, including Soroush, from its App Store in order to not violate US sanctions.
Iranian leaders are also worried that foreign powers can exploit popular anger inside Iran to foment unrest and weaken the regime. The Revolutionary Guards’ intelligence department recently briefed the parliament about Telegram, claiming that the application posed national security threats to Iran because foreign adversaries are using it to spread propaganda against the Islamic Republic. “The cyberspace is at the service of America and the Zionist regime and people should be rescued from its grip.” Sayyed Hossein Naqvi Hosseini, the speaker of the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee at the parliament, concurred. He called on the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology to expedite the creation of “national cyberspace networks” and support domestic applications.
Since Internet activism has played a key role in the mobilization of anti-regime, the Iranian regime has established new government agencies to tighten its control over the Internet. In 2011, the government created the Cyber Police department; and a year later, Khamenei ordered the establishment of a new government agency, called Supreme Council of Cyberspace, in an effort to step up the country’s crackdown on Iranian internet users. Some Iranians use VPN software to evade the government’s restrictions and monitoring, but it carries risks.